Thursday, July 08, 2010

This Celebrity Bidness

Lindsey Lohan is in the news not because of her skills at her profession but because she is going to jail for probation violations. And because she comes across as a silly spoiled brat and because the public loves stories about celebrities which have nothing to do with the reason they are celebrities, be it singing or acting, say, but loads to do with their general behavior, their marital and other relationships, their babies and their bodies. The celebrities most in demand are young women, especially young women who are seen as behaving very badly. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.

And the judge-and-jury for this is the general public. Read the comments on some of the celebrity sites and what harshness you find! What nastiness! That actress is too fat, like a hippo! This actress is too thin, like a corpse! And look at those wrinkles? What a ghastly outfit? Why does she let her children go out without hats?

Not all comments are negative. A young woman getting pregnant gets gooey congratulations and a young couple getting married (enjoying, as they tell, absolute total and perfect bliss) get well-wishes. When the same couple later splits up the comments have a similar expert tinge: Commenters judge who was at fault, who suffered the most and what the correct ethical solution might be.

All this might be just the fluff people need in their daily lives: The discussion is about the private lives of celebrities, and because everybody has a private life, everybody is an expert with something useful to say.

In any case, what fun to bash the very rich and famous, to find that they may not be any better off than us Little People! How delicious when they mess up despite all those advantages they have! And how exciting to feel that one actually knows someone that famous!

It may not be the way I get my daily dose of fluffiness but whom does it hurt if people get some relief by bashing the sillier celebrities?

Perhaps it hurts those people themselves? Susan Douglas (in Enlightened Sexism) reminds us that the celebrities most ridiculed in the media are women, not men, and that the celebrity gossip, when applied to women, has a gender-policing aspect:

Women must want babies! Women must want marriage! Women must focus on relationships and their private lives rather than on their careers or talents! Women must be the right weight, properly groomed and properly dressed! Their breasts must be large and at ninety-degree angle to the body but they must never look artificial.

That many of those who follow these sites are women makes the situation worth feminist analysis. I'm not the blogger to do that, given my lack of expertise, but I'm going to have a crack at it.

Finding other women failing the rigorous standards for female beauty and for some types of female behavior can be reassuring to the female member of the public. It means that she is not the only one failing or the only one finding compliance so hard. That can be a relief.

But it has a price: It also serves to make our public eye slide past the impossible norms to begin with. The norms still exist. Only now nobody can achieve them but the celebrities still should because they have all that fame and all that money!

The critical commentary on celebrities' lives also serves as a safety valve against the envy or discomfort we might feel when thinking of what it is like to be so tremendously rich. At the same time, a focus on the celebrities' pregnancies (the bump watch!), marriages and bodies makes them seem your average Jane Public and redirects that shared eye away from the major difference between their lives and those of the commenters. Which is in fame and money.

As Douglas points out, all this trends towards conservative values. Female celebrities are criticized for how they perform gender, and the Wild Girl celebrities are given much more limelight than any Wild Boy celebrities (who do exist). Perhaps this is because women with money are a greater deviation from the traditional gender norms, something that clashes with the traditional setup?

These are some of the reasons why I believe this topic has feminist implications. Add to them the fact that stories about Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are so common. Indeed, they often provide the bulk of female-related coverage on various news and popular culture sites. Consider what the implications of that might be.